Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Abraham Lincoln Turns 200

By Andrew Ferguson

Abraham Lincoln turns 200 this year, and he's beginning to show his age. When his birthday arrives, on February 12, Congress will hold a special joint session in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall, a wreath will be laid at the great memorial in Washington, and a webcast will link grade-school classrooms for a "teach-in" honoring his memory.

Admirable as they are, though, the events will strike many of us Lincoln buffs as inadequate, even halfhearted—and another sign that our appreciation for the 16th president and his towering achievements is slipping away. And you don't have to be a buff to believe that this is something we can't afford to lose.

Compare this year's celebration with the Lincoln centennial, in 1909. That year, Lincoln's likeness made its debut on the penny, thanks to approval from the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Communities and civic associations in every corner of the country erupted in parades, concerts, balls, lectures, and military displays. We still feel the effects today: The momentum unloosed in 1909 led to the Lincoln Memorial, opened in 1922, and the Lincoln Highway, the first paved transcontinental thoroughfare.

From ComstockComplete
"A penny saved is a penny earned," Benjamin Franklin said.
The celebrants in 1909 had a few inspirations we lack today. Lincoln's presidency was still a living memory for countless Americans. In 2009 we are farther in time from the end of the Second World War than they were from the Civil War; families still felt the loss of loved ones from that awful national trauma.

But Americans in 1909 had something more: an unembarrassed appreciation for heroes and an acute sense of the way that even long-dead historical figures press in on the present and make us who we are.

One story will illustrate what I'm talking about.

In 2003 a group of local citizens arranged to place a statue of Lincoln in Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy. The idea touched off a firestorm of controversy. The Sons of Confederate Veterans held a public conference of carefully selected scholars to "reassess" the legacy of Lincoln. The verdict—no surprise—was negative: Lincoln was labeled everything from a racist totalitarian to a teller of dirty jokes.

I covered the conference as a reporter, but what really unnerved me was a counter-conference of scholars to rebut the earlier one. These scholars drew a picture of Lincoln that only our touchy-feely age could conjure up. The man who oversaw the most savage war in our history was described—by his admirers, remember—as "nonjudgmental," "unmoralistic," "comfortable with ambiguity." A 19th-century Dr. Phil.

I felt the way a friend of mine felt as we later watched the unveiling of the Richmond statue in a subdued ceremony: "But he's so small!"

The statue in Richmond was indeed small; like nearly every Lincoln statue put up in the past half century, it was life-size and was placed at ground level, a conscious repudiation of the heroic-approachable and human, yes, but not something to look up to.

The Richmond episode taught me that Americans have lost the language to explain Lincoln's greatness even to ourselves. Earlier generations said they wanted their children to be like Lincoln: principled, kind, compassionate, resolute. Today we want Lincoln to be like us.

This helps to explain the long string of recent books in which writers have presented a Lincoln made after their own image. We've had Lincoln as humorist and Lincoln as manic-depressive, Lincoln the business sage and Lincoln the wily pol, the conservative Lincoln and the liberal Lincoln, the emancipator and the racist, the stoic philosopher, the Christian, the deist, the atheist-Lincoln over easy and Lincoln scrambled.

What's often missing, though, is the timeless Lincoln, the Lincoln whom all generations, our own no less than that of 1909, can lay claim to. Lucky for us, those memorializers from a century ago—and, through them, Lincoln himself—have left us a hint of where to find him.

The Lincoln Memorial, on the National Mall, is the most visited of our presidential monuments. It's a building of impressive scale and great beauty, but the most striking thing about it is the quiet that descends over the tourists who climb the wide, sweeping stairway and step into the cool of the marble chamber. Soon their attention is drawn to one or both of the Lincoln speeches etched into the walls on either side of the famous statue. After all this time, I am still astonished by the number of visitors who stand still to read, on one stone panel, the Gettysburg Address and, on the other, the Second Inaugural Address.

What they're reading is a summary of the American experiment, expressed in the finest prose any American has been capable of writing. One speech reaffirms that the country was dedicated to a proposition, a universal truth that applies to all men everywhere. The other declares that the survival of the country is somehow bound up with the survival of the proposition, that if the country doesn't survive, the proposition itself might someday be lost.

Here is where we find the Lincoln who endures: in the words he left us, defining the country we've inherited. Here is the Lincoln who can be endlessly renewed and who, 200 years after his birth, retains the power to renew us.

Penny Wise

They're everywhere. In jars, in junk drawers, under sofa cushions. Forty-two percent of the change you get back every day is handed out in pennies. What else do you know about the nation's most abundant coin? Answers, see below.

1. A penny stays in circulation for how many years?

A. 30 years
B. 50 years
C. 10 years

2. True or false: If you dropped a penny off the Empire State Building and it hit a passing pedestrian 1,454 feet below, it would kill him.

3. What is the most a Lincoln penny has ever sold for at auction?

A. $221,950
B. $373,750
C. $1.3 million

4. True or false: Sucking on a copper penny will fool a Breathalyzer test.

5. In 2005, Edmond Knowles cashed in his world-record collection of 1,308,459 pennies ($13,084.59) at a Coinstar in Flomaton, Alabama, because …

A. He needed to pay for home repairs
B. 4.5 tons of pennies might be considered a complete collection
C. His wife told him it was time
D. All of the above

6. True or false: It costs the U.S. government 1.2 cents to make a 1-cent penny.


1) A, although two out of three pennies printed in the past 30 years have vanished from circulation. 2) False. It might hurt, but a lightweight penny encounters too much wind resistance and isn't able to gather enough speed to deliver a killing blow. 3) B. A 1944-S Steel Cent. 4) False. Neither will a nickel, as some urban mythologists believe. 5) D. Knowles is considering collecting dimes. 6) True.

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